VISITING THE SAD TREE MAN OF MAYSAN: A rare skin condition keeps him helpless and hiding indoors.

Since he was 14 years old, Rasul Hashem has suffered from a rare disorder that is known as the “tree man disease”.

By Mahdi al-Saadi, in Maysan

Its official name is Epidermodysplasia verruciformis and it is a rare condition, characterized by an abnormal susceptibility to human papillomaviruses, or warts, on the skin.

“When I first noticed the growth of warts on my skin, I was really embarrassed,” says the 20-year-old local of the Maysan province, in south eastern Iraq. “I tried to hide the condition by wearing gloves and I found myself unable to do even the simplest things. Because of my difficult financial situation, I couldn’t get the medical help I needed. But as it is, it turns out this condition is incurable anyway.”

Hashem speaks calmly but it’s clear that he is depressed and anxious. His only sister had been looking after him but she left the family home after she got married, and their parents are deceased.

Hashem basically stays at home all day – the local government has provided him with a small house but no furnishings. His room contains nothing much more than a mattress and a pillow and his neighbours have tried to help him by giving him things like a refrigerator and an old air conditioner.

If it were not for friends and neighbours, nobody would even know he was there, Hashem explains. He often sits with his head bent toward the ground and he explains he doesn’t like people to see him. Even at the height of the Iraqi summer, when temperatures soar to over 45 degrees Celsius, Hashem still insists on wearing as many clothes as possible to hide the growths on his skin. Since the warts began growing on his face, he has even started to wear a mask. He buys what little he needs with donations from neighbours and friends.

“I’m only able to go out at night and the darkness comforts me,” he says. There’s an added risk of skin cancer for sufferers of the disease and the doctors have told Hashem to try to stay out of the sun.

“Unfortunately, there is no effective treatment for the disease at the moment, “ confirms Radi al-Saadi, a dermatologist in the city of Amara. “Treatment is limited to trying to restore the skin and trying to provide relief for the warts.”

“People from the city used to visit him and provide him with assistance,” his neighbour, Haidar Mohammed, who takes care of Hashem, says. “But the coronavirus pandemic has basically stopped them from coming. He depends mostly on us now.”

“Before the pandemic, some friends had sponsored a trip to Baghdad, where skin specialists examined me,” Hashem recounts. “They promised to follow up but I couldn’t travel again because of the pandemic and because of my financial situation.”

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